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France at the end of the 18th century


Louis XVI
Louis XVI

The public hoped for more from the reign of his grandson, Louis XVI, who became king in 1774. Not wanting to appear a despot, he quickly reinstated the parlements, to much public rejoicing. But Louis was an unimpressive emblem of the monarchy in an age when public opinion carried increasing political weight. Awkward and seemingly slow-witted, he became an object of derision for his incapacity to consummate his marriage to Marie-Antoinette for seven years. More important, the king was thought to be dominated by his Austrian-born wife, whose conspicuous spending was increasingly resented.

Under Louis XVI, France had only one major success in foreign affairs, the American Revolution, which France supported with men and money to weaken Britain. But in eastern Europe, France lacked the means to effectively prop up its old allies, Poland and the Ottoman Empire, against rising threats from Russia. Austria, France’s supposed ally, frequently sided with Russia, causing the French to become increasingly hostile to the 1756 alliance and to Marie-Antoinette. Her Austrian origins and connections aroused doubts about her loyalty to France. Meanwhile, Prussia humiliated France by snuffing out a French-supported revolt in the Netherlands.

Financial Problems


But the monarchy’s main problem lay closer to home, namely its finances. The American Revolution added another 1.5 billion to 2.0 billion livres to the exploding national debt. By 1789 the government was spending half its budget on debt servicing.

Louis’s finance ministers sought to stem the coming tide of bankruptcy, while other ministers sought reforms in the administration. From 1774 to 1776, Finance Minister Anne Robert Jacques Turgot tried to increase revenues by expanding the economy. To do so, he removed state controls on the grain trade and encouraged new manufacturing by suppressing the guilds.

His successor, Jacques Necker, streamlined the tax-collection system and reorganized the treasury. But like Turgot, Necker was forced to borrow additional money at increasingly ruinous interest rates. In 1781 Necker published the Compte rendu, a doctored account of state finances, to reassure the state’s creditors about the regime’s financial health.

These numbers were soon challenged by Necker’s rival, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, who succeeded him in 1783. Calonne sought to expand tax revenues by stimulating the economy through additional state expenditures. Whatever its economic effects, Calonne’s spending spree worsened the debt crisis, and he had to consider additional taxes, among other measures. By this time, however, the French public viewed such initiatives as signs of impending despotism. To overcome resistance in the Paris parlement, Calonne sought to win prior approval of his plans by an Assembly of Notables, composed of nobles and high church officials hand-picked for the occasion. Meeting in early 1787, the notables approved parts of his general plan, but not the tax increases.

Calonne left office and was replaced by Loménie de Brienne, whose own reform plan did no better with the notables. The notables were dismissed in May 1787, and Brienne tried to deal directly with the Paris parlement. But negotiations eventually broke down.

To resolve the impasse, the monarchy stripped the parlements of their political powers in May 1788. The only result was an outpouring of support for the parlements and rising demand for a meeting of the Estates-General to consider the disintegrating condition of the state. In August, Brienne was fired, Necker recalled, and the Estates-General summoned to meet in Versailles. The calling of the Estates-General raised a second issue alongside that of royal despotism: How was the nation to be represented? "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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